“Bad Grammar” and the Book of Mormon

In a launch event for two newly published books, The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon: Grammatical Variation (parts 1 and 2 of Volume 3 of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project), Professor Royal Skousen discussed some of the editing the archaic grammar of the Book of Mormon has undergone through the years.

PROVO, Utah (April 6, 2016)—Mark Twain famously wrote about the Book of Mormon, “If Joseph Smith had left out [the phrase “and it came to pass”], the Book of Mormon would have been only a pamphlet.”

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Professor Skousen (left) and Professor Carmack (right) discuss their research at the launch of the new book.

Of course this isn’t true, explained Professor of Linguistics and English Language Royal Skousen, during his presentation of his two new books titled Grammatical Variation. Skousen, with the collaboration of Dr. Stanford Carmack, an independent scholar from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, analyzes the extensive grammatical editing of the Book of Mormon by scribes, typesetters, Joseph Smith, and other apostles.

The Book of Mormon Critical Text Project is a five-volume examination of the two manuscripts and 20 printed editions of the Book of Mormon. In volume 3, Skousen examines how its language and the numerous editing changes offer insight into this book of scripture and its publishing process. In a launch event sponsored by BYU Studies, the Interpreter Foundation, and the Department of Linguistics and English Language, Skousen and Carmack presented a portion of the research covered in the new books.

Skousen explained that the nonstandard English was grammatically emended by editors, scribes, and typesetters. “Their task was to remove what they considered ungrammatical English, thus removing distractions for readers,” he said. For today’s reading public, this nonstandard English could easily get in the way of the message of the book.

The editing examples Skousen briefly discussed show the unevenness of human editing; many types over the course of the different editions are not entirely edited out. For example, in the original manuscript, only nine out of ten uses of the past tense “done” were changed to “did.” A later editor made the final edit in this case, but other types are still not completely standardized in the current edition.

In conjunction with this, Skousen explained that many phrases that sound strange, even wrong to modern ears, were perfectly acceptable in earlier English. “He’s not a hick, he’s just speaking Early Modern English!” Skousen told his audience.

To prove this point, Skousen took several examples of what might seem like strange or incorrect grammar in the Book of Mormon and displayed examples of that same language in other works from earlier English. He explained that the Early Modern English period did not have set grammar rules; writers simply used the language they knew.

Carmack then presented some of his research — also included in Grammatical Variation — using the Early English Books Online database to show matching between the textual record and questionable Book of Mormon grammar. He pointed out various Early Modern English usage that can be found in both the Book of Mormon and English translations of the Bible that preceded the King James Bible. “These matches are quite powerful when we realize the language of the Book of Mormon matches other Early Modern English Bibles,” Carmack said.

He went on to compare suspect Book of Mormon grammar seen in Tyndale’s biblical translations, including using “are” and “hath” with the same plural subject. He explained that some Book of Mormon usage appears to have been mostly used by Scottish or Northern English writers.

Skousen finished his presentation by addressing Twain’s claim. According to Skousen, if “and it came to pass” was removed from the Book of Mormon, the book would only be fifteen pages less. In fact, the phrase was removed entirely from some 20th-century Danish, German, French, Swedish, and Dutch translations. In any case, Skousen made clear that this volume is an important contribution toward examining the editing process the manuscripts and printed editions have gone through to become the beloved scripture we have today.

—Alison Siggard (B.A. English Education ’17)

Alison covers the Department of Linguistics and English Language for the College of Humanities. She is a senior studying English teaching with a minor in music.